“A Language”

— a poem

A literary analysis of Susan Stewart’s “A Language.”

“A Language”


I had heard the story before
about the two prisoners, alone
in the same cell, and one
gives the other lessons in a language.
Day after day, the pupil studies hard—
what else does he have to do?—and year
after year they practice,
waiting for the hour of release.
They tackle the nouns, the cases, and genders,
the rules for imperatives and conjugations,
but near the end of his sentence, the teacher
suddenly dies and only the pupil
goes back through the gate and into the open
world. He travels to the country of his new
language, fluent, and full of hope.
Yet when he arrives he finds
that the language he speaks is not
the language that is spoken. He has learned
a language one other person knew—its inventor,
his cell-mate and teacher.
 
            And then the other
evening, I heard the story again.
This time the teacher was Gombrowicz, the pupil
was his wife. She had dreamed of learning
Polish and, hour after hour, for years
on end, Gombrowicz had been willing to teach
her a Polish that does not and never
did exist. The man who told
the story would like to marry his girlfriend.
They love to read in bed and between
them speak three languages.
They laughed—at the wife, at Gombrowicz, it wasn’t
clear, and I wasn’t sure that they
themselves knew what was funny.
I wondered why the man had told
the story, and thought of the tricks
enclosure can play. A nod, or silence,
another nod, consent—or not, as a cloud
drifts beyond the scene and the two
stand pointing in different directions
at the very same empty sky.
 
            Even so, there was something
else about the story, like teaching
a stunt to an animal—a four-legged
creature might prance on two legs
or a two-legged creature might
fall onto four.
 
            I remembered,
then, the miscarriage, and before that
the months of waiting: like baskets filled
with bright shapes, the imagination
run wild. And then what arrived:
the event that was nothing, a mistaken idea,
a scrap of charred cloth, the enormous
present folding over the future,
like a wave overtaking
a grain of sand.
 
            There was a myth
I once knew about twins who spoke
a private language, though one
spoke only the truth and the other
only lies. The savior gets mixed
up with the traitor, but the traitor
stays as true to himself as a god.

 
All night the rain falls here, falls there,
and the creatures dream, or drown, in the lair.

Susan Stewart

Before I consider the above poem, which I do deeply like, I just must point to the following words by Stewart — they were penned for an academic text, 📙 The Handbook of Philosophy, demonstrating her versatility as a wordsmith (oh how I wanna b 1 2)… :

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, and lyric, words meant to be sung to the musical accompaniment of a lyre, seem, at least etymologically, to have little to do with each other. Philosophers may even say we make a category mistake in comparing them, since the first term refers to the pursuit of knowledge of truth and the second term refers to an expressive art form. Yet both philosophers and lyric poets are solo speakers, and their common material is language—indeed, they share the same language, for it is not that there are separate tongues for each. Philosophers and poets are alike in certain actions, as well: they convey intelligible statements; employ formal structures with beginnings, middles, and ends; and hope to convince or move their audiences, and so incorporate a social view from the outset.
. . .
Nevertheless, … the language of philosophy strives for clarity and singularity of reference. Lyric, in contrast, is always over-determined; its images, symbols, sounds, the very grain of the voices it suggests, all compete for our attention and throw us back, whether we are listening or reading, to repeated consideration of the whole. Philosophy should be paraphrasable and translatable if its truth claims are universal, but poetry has finality of form, and to paraphrase it is a heresy; to translate it, a betrayal.

By the way, it was while reading her chapter in 📙 The Handbook of Philosophy on the lyric genre that I wondered who exactly Susan Stewart was. I investigated (one thing led to another) and found the poem cited above and considered below (and my plans for reviewing the text that my schedule say I should have gone absent without a leg to stand on).

As he’d say to me, “dig deeper, keep on digging”


Oh for Ireland / Joyous for Heaney.

The poem

I’ll comment on the six parts of “A Language” here (six as I see them). But, in short, the poem seems to be about dream vs. reality, about deceit (intentional or otherwise, by one’s self to one’s self or by one to another) about contradiction, and about love (lost, misplaced and blind). It was amusing me until the miscarriage — it read too much like being real, i.e., drawn from the author’s very own life experience. The last two lines ain’t italic and that’s the author’s switch of emphasis, not mine. Witold Gombrowicz — a Polish writer (1904–1969) with an interesting bio (as anti-establishment, anti-religious bisexual kind of guy, his books were banned in communist Poland) — said with regard to literary criticism, and I do quoteth the man: “Literary criticism is not the judging of one [soul] by another therefore, do not judge. Simply describe your reactions. Never write about the author or the work, only about yourself in confrontation with the work or the author. You are allowed to write about yourself.” *

Part one

To begin at the beginning I felt it would link to the prisoner’s dilemma but it didn’t.**  It was about trickery, but the language may well have been code for the language of love. The intimacy built with one other cannot – ctrl C, ctrl V – be just transferred from the one to an(y )other one. Maybe the deceit lay in the older more learned one not teaching adequately the singularity of true love, it, like Halley’s comet, is a once in a lifetime thing.

I had heard the story before / ...
I had heard the story before.

I didn’t read in between the lines that the student felt annoyance for his/her post-prison discovery.

Part two

Underscoring Part 1, but here making reference to a real world relationship, that of the writer Gombrowicz and his (much younger) muse.

And then the other evening, I heard the story again / ...
the tricks enclosure can play / ...
at the very same empty sky.

We might be together, but we may be worlds apart too. Tricks reads a little comparatively, is this the poem’s narrator recalling the honeymoon period of a former or a current relationship. undergraduates bedding down with books and the positivity bestowed from having a lifetime of dreams and plans to look forward to.

Part three

Even so, / ...
... fall onto four.

We can learn to do various things, things that have no real utility, point or purpose whatsoever.

Part four

Very powerful and the mood of the poem abruptly changes (for me anyway).

I remembered, then, the miscarriage / ...
the enormous present folding over the future, /
like a wave overtaking a grain of sand.

I feel this to be all too real.

Part five

Such stories of twin as co-collaborators are commonplace. The word “myth” speaks volumes here. Did the miscarriage herald the end of the narrator’s once perfect relationship? The myth of forever love… And then in comes a god and ‘his’ arch-nemesis the dastardly devil.

There was a myth I once knew / ...
the traitor stays as true to himself as a god.

Good and Evil, this is great! Stewart here becomes a philosopher and made me realise something that should have been obvious. (Oh Life / Woman Alive / Wax Lyrical.) The devil doesn’t falter and stays true to his typecast pigeon hole. Yet the given god transcends from savior to traitor.


I’m choosing my confessions /
Like a hurt lost and blinded fool.

Part six

The ending (two lines, a different mode of typed-text emphasis) is short and is sans-sanguinity. We are creatures just the same as the birds and the bees; the sacrificial lambs, the holy cows and the bunnies busily beavering away.

All night the rain falls here, falls there, /
 and the creatures dream, or drown, in the lair.

The rain falls on us all, rich or poor, happy or sad, female or male. We either live the dream in our dream or we sleepwalk into the labyrinthine maze that is our torment of torrential thoughts on what might have been, what could’ve been for: what once was, no longer is.

All in all, there’s sadness here isn’t there — the empty sky, the dark rainy night — where, if you don’t fantasise and delude yourself, you’ll drown in black-mood depression. Everything you’d planned for — taken as faith, taken at face-value, taken for granted; taken as a given — is abruptly and inexplicably taken away from you. Be it faith in fellow man, faith in your muse, faith in what you’d believed to have been your partner for life; the prospect of a soon to be born insatiably innocent (genes aside) version of yourself.

— § § § —


— § § § —

Foot fetish notes
* The prisoner’s dilemma is a paradox in decision analysis (a.k.a., ‘game theory) in which two individuals acting in their own self-interests do not produce the optimal outcome. In other words, if both were to be altruistic toward the other they’d both do well. My sophisticated ethics teacher told sought to explain this to us by way of the medium of money. She said: you could both take 50 Riyal now or if you both forfeit the Riyal now (the honey tomorrow thesis) you’ll both get 100 Riyal tomorrow, but if any one of you takes the 50 now and the other doesn’t the one who takes the money gets to have their small amount of honey today whereas the other will get nothing. So, (1) knowing that most humans are considered to be selfish and also (2) not being able to communicate with the other prisoner, she said that (3) most would grab the 50 because few would risk foregoing it for the possibility of 100. The natural assumption is that the other prisoner would be short-termist in character and go for the guarantee of a few Riyals today as opposed to the prospect of far more Riyals tomorrow.

** As a critic in The New Yorker said in 2012, his “grotesque, erotic, and often hilarious stories” soon established Gombrowicz as a widely read author. His fiction’s been deemed as creepy as Poe’s and as abusurdist as Kafka’s. ((A man encounters another man by chance at the opera and shadows him for weeks—sending him flowers, writing letters to his mistress—unaware of the torment his attentions are causing.)) ((A countess famous for her meatless dinners may, it turns out, be serving human flesh.)) Gombrowicz himself said of his writing that he was, “never more satisfied than when my pen gave birth to some scene that was truly crazy, removed from the (healthy) expectations of mediocre logic and yet firmly rooted in its own separate logic.”

Rita and Witold Gombrowicz, 1969.
“Why then does this pharmaceutical extract called “pure poetry” bore and weary me, especially when it appears in rhymed form?”
Witold Gombrowicz
The title… don’t be fooled, it’s the equivalent of today’s click-bait. If you are wanting erotica, click here: Nin, Anaïs or here Lawrence, D. H.. No, the content of this novel is more about (hu)man’s thirst and quest for youth when they become aware that they’re well past their prime and that to relive it necessitates the pursuing of someone in their prime, to leach of of their lustfulness; to free-ride upon their yet to be curtailed free-will… … …

Mayday, ((m’aider))

venez m’aider (“come and help me”)

The Handmaid’s Tale stresses the importance of reading to our freedom…

This book is usually, and quite rightly, placed in the same category of dystopian fiction as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, but has a particular focus on the tyranny of patriarchy (the Aunt’s being the lapdogs so to speak). **I do though get confused by Offred because, well, yes you’ve gotta adapt to survive, but she seems somehow accommodated to her trysts with Commander fRed and in to her dalliances with the driver. What happens to Molly? how exactly did her daughter get wrested from her bosom up by the cold river?** The book’s ending pleasingly open-ended, because come on — dear J — there ain’t no such thing as black — 000000 — and white — FFFFFF. __Context — our sub-text & reading in between the lines my Only.One — is everything; ain’t it m8? Atwood stresses this by emphasising how changes in context impact upon behaviours and attitudes. We read the phrase “Context is all” in the book several times: Think scramble. And yeah, I loved it how our Ofred believed that she’d won round one and let him take the second, but after several “games nights” realised his superiority at this particular board game.__

… it also stresses the trap that academics may fall into: the risk of misreading and misunderstanding historical texts.

Snippets


There is more than one kind of freedom. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy it was freedom to, now you are being given freedom from. (p. 24)

⁓Total Control⁓


Men are sex machines, said Aunt L, and not much more. They only want one thing, you must learn to manipulate them. Lead them around by the nose, this is a metaphor. This is nature’s way. (p. 143)

⁓Total Control⁓


So there it was. Out in the open: his wife didn’t understand him. That was what I was there for then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true. (p. 156)

⁓Total Control⁓


The moment of betrayal is the worst, the moment when you know beyond any doubt that you’ve been betrayed: that some other human being has wished you that much evil. (p. 193)

⁓Total Control⁓


“Nature demands variety, for men” he says. “It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. … Women know this instinctively … they buy so many clothes to trick the men into thinking they are several different women.” (p. 239)

⁓Total Control⁓

B02BACD9-6C87-42CC-AA9A-FA6A6FCA7008
George Orwell’s “1984” is often juxtaposed with fellow English author, Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”

Who controls the past controls the future /
Who controls the present controls the past.


p. s.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday”
Mayday is an emergency procedure word used internationally as a distress signal in voice-procedure radio communications. The “mayday” procedure word was originated in 1921, by a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. The radio officer—one Frederick Stanley Mockford—opted for “mayday” from the French m’aider (“help me”)—a shortened form of venez m’aider (“come and help me”)—because he had a thing at that time for a fine young thing from Paris.

My hero: George Orwell by Margaret Atwood
I grew up with George Orwell. I was born in 1939, and Animal Farm was published in 1945. I read it at age nine. It was lying around the house, and I mistook it for a book about talking animals. I knew nothing about the kind of politics in the book – the child’s version of politics then, just after the war, consisted of the simple notion that Hitler was bad but dead. To say that I was horrified by this book would be an understatement. The fate of the farm animals was so grim, the pigs were so mean and mendacious and treacherous, the sheep were so stupid. Children have a keen sense of injustice, and this was the thing that upset me the most: the pigs were so unjust. The whole experience was deeply disturbing, but I am forever grateful to Orwell for alerting me early to the danger flags I’ve tried to watch out for since. As Orwell taught, it isn’t the labels – Christianity, socialism, Islam, democracy, two legs bad, four legs good, the works – that are definitive, but the acts done in their names. Read on…

Lust and Lambast
A hand left poignantly unshaken; a republican party, quite unstirred.

Writing concisely is not my style yet, as column inches for anything other than celebrity gossip, consumer reviews and self-help are now such a precious commodity, I must be succinct. Even if I were allowed to go wild with the word count, it would probably demonstrate only the validity of the Law of Diminishing Returns. Nowadays smartphone shortened attention spans need to be taken into account. In order to gain wide readership on matters of current affairs, being parsimonious with prose is a necessity. Gone are the days when waxing lyrical in verbose flowery language on issues of international political economy was considered a mark of distinction. Read on…

Love’s Philosophy

(( soul meets soul on lovers’ lips ))

A literary analysis of Shelley’s “Love’s Poetry.”

“Love’s Poetry”


The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—

See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?


— Percy Bysshe Shelley

Literary Analysis

1. The poet

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) was one of the major (Latter-day) English Romantic poets. It is pleasing to note that Shelley refused to add sugar to his tea. This was a political statement against slavery for in those times, sugar plantations depended upon slave labour.

joseph_severn_-_posthumous_portrait_of_shelley_writing_prometheus_unbound_1845-1-
Joseph Severn’s 1845 portrait of Shelley.


Read more of and on The Romantics:
Poetry & ProsePoetsS. T. Coleridge
Poetry & ProsePoetsJohn Keats
Poetry & ProsePoetsP. B. Shelley
Poetry & ProsePoetsLord Byron

2. The poem

What is love? Oh Jay. . . poem by poem, step by step we will learn what it is, what it means and how it manifests. “Love’s Philosophy” in spite of its title, has little to do with philosophy per se. ‘Philosophy’ in the context of this poem can be seen as the poet’s argument; the narrator’s point of view.

The first stanza begins with descriptions of the natural world and its interconnectedness. And from this the lovesick narrator turns to the human who occupies their thoughts. In the second stanza the narrator’s pleas intensify. The narrator places us in the position of his beloved and asks us to look around and ‘see the mountains kiss high heaven’. At poem’s end, we are none the wiser, did the narrator win the heart and body of the one they so dearly desired, or did they not? It is worth noting too that each stanza seems to conclude with something of a rhetorical question. Words aren’t required to answer such questions, but lips are.

This poem uses lots of natural imagery and simple verse forms (but very cleverly so) and is thus a good example of a Romantic Period poem. Needless to say, the poem’s theme is by no means original; countless poets before Shelley used the connections so evident in nature to justify the ‘naturalness’ of a desired romantic/love relationship. As many point out, there’s an influence from John Donne (or similar) — consider Donne’s 1615 poem, “A Lecture upon the Shadow”:

Stand still, and I will read to thee /
A lecture, love, in love’s philosophy.

Consider too, Donne’s poem, “The Flea,” which evokes nature in a sort of odd but somehow cute way:

And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be /

Despite its focus on a well versed theme, it is the quality of the language and the brilliance of the structure that renders “Love’s Philosophy” a valid additional contribution to the thesis that is as follows: love is as natural as the birds and bees so darling, just accept my love for you and, sweetheart just accept my lining and lustful kisses for your lovely and luscious lips! As has been the way since Sappho and Catullus this theme — this insatiable subject — can be seen as part of the “nature-justifies-love nexus”:

In this poem the age-old argument is put forward by a swain (man) to a maid (lady) — but it would be equally valid for any other human to human combination, for “love,” my dear reader, is “love.”
.
This then’s the ancient argument with its logic and strength rooted in nature’s garden: — As all of the natural world is in intimate contact — water, wind, mountains, sun-rays moonbeams and even birds, bees and the fragrant Jasminum Sambac, Rose and Honeysuckle too. What about you? why can you not just submit to the laws of nature and submit your lips to mine? As Shelley writes, “What is all this sweet work worth / If thou kiss not me?”

I would argue in fact that the overt influence to Donne is more likely a note of acknowledgment and due deference by Shelley. We all, after all, pen verse upon the shoulders of giants (for all its goods and all its ails). “Love’s Philosophy” reiterates the ‘connection’ that exists between all things in the natural world and between the poem’s narrator and his object of desire. As there is unity in nature, there too should be unity in human relationships (both platonic and sexually intimate). As I wrote somewhere before:


Inevitably chemistry becomes physical as ultimately: everything’s biological.

Language

The natural imagery in this poem is relatively simplistic and uncomplicated: ‘fountains’, ‘rivers’ and ‘oceans’ are all unmodified and description free. While they may be ‘simple,’ they are nonetheless perfectly and skillfully chosen. Note the words closely associated with physicality and intimacy:

mingle / mix / a sweet emotion / kiss / clasp

Repetitive uses of ‘clasp’ — how the waves hold one another & how the immaterial light of the sun seems to touch the earth — stress the interconnections between elements of the natural world . The poem certainly has sensual, if not sexual, connotations (arguably it is designed to persuade not shock. The logic is thus, if in nature things ‘clasp’ one another freely, and if nature’s elements readily ‘mix’ and bond with each other, even obeying the command of God (if, unlike Shelley, his contemporary readers still believed in God’s command to procreate), then turning down the poet’s request for a kiss would be for the object in question, like him/her disagreeing with the laws of nature ;).

Anaphora — To refresh our memories anaphora, dear reader, is the repeated use of a word or phrase to reinforce meaning. In this poem anaphora will have most likely have been used to emphasise the narrator’s quiet desperation:

And the rivers.../
And the waves.../
And the sunlight.../
And the moonbeams.

Enjambment — Enjambment is when a line of poetry carries on into the next line, without punctuation or pause but carrying sense. As critics say, enjambment helps the flow of meaning and pairs up passages of the poem. In “Love’s Philosophy,” Shelley does this between lines 3/4, 6/7 & 11/12.

Lines 11 & 12 enjambed.
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;

Personification — In essence, personification means giving non-human objects human characteristics, we see this in various places in the poem:

-- Fountains mingle with the river
-- Winds of heaven mix forever with a sweet emotion
-- The mountains kiss high heaven
-- The waves clasp one another
-- Moonbeams kiss the sea

Metre

The dominant foot in this poem is the trochee, where the first syllable is stressed and second non-stressed, producing a falling rhythm (the opposite of the iambic). As there are four feet per line (except in lines 4, 8 & 16) the metre is technically termed as a: trochaic tetrameter.* However, some lines have iambicda–DUM — and anapaestic rhythm — da–da–DUM — and this altered beat ties in with the poem’s meaning at given points.

Line 1.
The foun/tains min/gle with / the river,
Iambic feet start this poem. Steady and traditional da–DUM tetrameter.

Line 2.
And the riv/ers with the o/cean,
Two anapaests da–da–DUM da–da–DUM with an extra beat – this line rises and falls.

Line 3.
The winds / of hea/ven mix / for ever
Iambic tetrameter again, like the first line.

Line 4.
With a / sweet e/motion;
This shortened line is unusual, reflecting an abrupt fall (three trochees = trochaic trimeter).

Line 5.
Nothing / in the / world is / single;
This line is the first true trochaic tetrameter, that first stressed beat stamping its authority on what is a definitive statement.

Line 6.
All things / by a law / divine
An opening spondeestressed stressed, to add emphasis or to break up monotonous rhythm: DUM–DUM — gives energy to the rising anapaesta metrical foot consisting of three syllables, the first two are unstressed and the last is stressed: da–da–DUM — and iamban unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: da–DUM.

Line 7.
In one / spirit / meet and / mingle -
Trochaic tetrameter again — A trochee is a reverse iamb: DA–dum (like say, ‘BRAIN-dead’.

Line 8.
Why not / I with / thine?
Here we might interpret it as (1) two trochees and an extra stressed beat or (2) an anapaest and iamb.

Line 9.
See the / mountains / kiss high / heaven,
Here we’ve a trochaic tetrameter, said to be a classic foot for the expression of poetic grief and emotional confusion. . .

Line 10.
And the / waves clasp / one a/nother;
Trochees plus that gripping spondee, followed by the softer pyrrhic — a metrical foot of two short or unaccented syllables.

Line 11.
No sist/er-flower / would be / forgiv/en
Nine syllables make this an iambic tetrameter with a fading extra syllable.

Line 12.
If it / disdained / its broth/er;
Note the tripping rhythm as the opening trochee moves into the iambic finish and the natural pause with fading extra syllable.

Line 13.
And the / sunlight / clasps the / earth
Trochees with the extra stressed beat at the end.

Line 14.
And the / moonbeams / kiss the / sea:
Same tetrameter.

Line 15.
What is / all this / sweet work / worth
Note this line and the previous two end with a strong masculine beat, reflecting a little more enthusiasm?

Line 16.
If thou / kiss not / me?
And the final shortened line, again two trochees and the stressed beat, me, all by itself.


Know this, oh my sweetest one — breathe, feel and hear these words from two centuries ago:


Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.


END NOTES

* I rely heavily on Andrew Spacey (2019). I/m still undergraduate and my mother tongue is knot an English won; I couldn’t even distinguish between a gramophone and a homophone.